Public Schools Join Hunt for Grants

Districts explore all options to fund programs as budgets are trimmed
Monday, May 25, 2009
Star-Ledger Staff

West Orange schools wanted a new way to teach physical education to sixth-graders. The Cranford district hoped to expand its service learning program to include more students. Piscataway was looking to make American history more meaningful.

All three districts looked beyond their budgets and sought grants to pay for the new programs.

With the economy ailing, more cash-strapped New Jersey public schools are joining their private brethren in the hunt for public and private money to expand programs or fill holes.

“We are looking at any option, any venue to secure grant money, donations, whatever we can to supplement the school budget,” said Camille Widdows, a Cranford school board member. “Districts in New Jersey, if they are not looking for that kind of funding, they should be.”

The state Department of Education this year has received nearly 80 applications for federal grants for after-school programs administered by the state, compared with 60 to 65 applications in prior years. More districts than usual also attended the state’s technical assistance session, which help schools learn how to apply and administer grants, said Anne Corwell, director of the office of grants management for the Education Department.

But even as interest grows, the recession is reducing the pot of money available for discretionary grants, with many private foundations seeing their assets fall, according to school and foundation officials.

Federal grants also have shrunk in recent years and are now often targeted to specific needs, such as homeless students, so few districts may be eligible to apply, Corwell said. But money from the federal stimulus package should boost some grant opportunities this year, especially for technology, she said.

The New Jersey Department of Education administered $71 million in competitive grant money last year — most of it federal funds. That was down from $80 million in 2006.

Private grantmakers said they have seen a recent spike in interest from schools. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, for example, had two dozen schools seek grants this year for its artist-in-residency program, nearly double that of last year. The New Jersey Education Association supports a private foundation that received applications from more than 60 teachers this year, about 20 percent more than last year.

The increased interest is having ripple effects.

When Fairleigh Dickinson University started a five-year pilot program last year to help science and math teachers bulk up their skills, it included a workshop on grant writing.

“We realized that school districts don’t have the ability to go out and buy,” said Michael Avaltroni, co-director of the Institute for the Enhancement of Teaching Science and Math. “We thought it was important to teach teachers to be self-starting in looking for funding for software, or interactive computers in the classroom, the little things that could make a big difference in exciting students.”

In many schools, teachers or departments find the grants and apply on their own. But some districts have assigned that responsibility to an employee who also may wear several other hats.

In Cranford, that job goes to instructional support specialist Stephen Izzo, and he said the district receives about $200,000 to $300,000 a year in donations and grants.

Those awards range from a few thousand dollars to aid literacy programs to $125,000 over three years from the federal Learn and Serve America program. That grant has allowed Cranford to expand its service-learning program to several schools.

Piscataway is in the first year of implementing a federal $879,000 Teaching American History grant that it is sharing with five other Middlesex County school districts. The money will pay for professional development programs and online resources for about 50 teachers, said Carolyn Keck, Piscataway’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

“The better knowledge the teachers have, the better they teach the subject,” Keck said. “The online resources bring history in a different way to kids.”

The grant also arrived at a fortuitous time. Belt-tightening meant the Piscataway district cut almost half of its $200,000 professional development budget in its new budget, she said.

“We’re constantly looking for grants that emphasize professional development,” Keck said. “Timing is everything.

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